Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Meek's Cutoff (2011 U.S. Release) Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Tuck what is called Meek's Cutoff...a bad cutoff for all that tuck it. ...I will just say, pen and tong will both fall short when they grow to tell of the suffering the company went through.
-Samuel Parker, 1845

As Meek’s Cutoff opens, we see water. Cool, rushing water, providing a cleansing and peaceful sound. We see a group of pioneers trying to ford the river, up to the top of their wagon wheels in water. Up to their shoulders in water as they wade across, they linger nearby and fill up their buckets. They are lost, but at least they have water. Question is, when will they find more? Meek’s Cutoff is based on a true story that was documented in 1845 as a group of pioneers decided to hire Stephen Meek, a guide and trapper to lead them on a shortcut through central Oregon, to lead them to the Willamette Valley. He ended up getting them lost, wandering around the south-central deserts of Oregon as their water supply and patience wore out.

I consider myself predisposed to enjoy this film. Michelle Williams is just about my favorite actress working today, and Kelly Reichardt’s previous film, Wendy and Lucy (2008), was one of my top 5 films from that year. This film confirms what I’ve been noticing and that is she is one of the most talented and promising American filmmakers working today. She’s made three recent films, Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), and Meek’s Cutoff that are all set in Oregon and all concern a certain wandering and searching. I think that she’s becoming increasingly assured in her abilities and the stakes have continued to increase in each film. Images throughout Meek's Cutoff are continually impressive, stark and realist. Yes the images are beautiful, mainly because it captures raw landscape. But the landscape is threatening and it’s as harsh as terrain gets, with no water in sight as our troupe walks across dry lake beds and dusty hills barren of any trees.

Williams plays Emily Tetherow, wife of Solomon Tetherow. There are two other couples with them, each with their own wagon. Emily Tetherow is a fascinating character to watch. Her stern and dirtied face is able to appear harsh and tough enough to compete with Stephen Meek, whom it’s clear she derides and blames for their plight. It’s also clear she holds some blame for the men in the troupe, as the women are never included in the discussions on what should be done with Meek and what they should do next. At one point in the film, the troupe captures a Native American and decides he might be the one to lead them to water. Emily does some kind things for him: feeding him, mending his moccasin, protecting his life. Yet it’s for realistic reasons she does this: She wants something in return from him and wants him to pay them back. I found this character development to be terrifically truthful. Williams plays the character straight and tough without a hint of weakness, able to draw a gun much quicker than the men appear able to.

Much has been made of the fact that Reichardt chose to film in standard aspect ratio, rather than widescreen. I’ve read reviews that have commented on this by claiming that Reichardt achieves some sort of claustrophobic effect or profound tension through this artistic choice. I couldn’t disagree more. I maintain once the film starts, you forget the film isn’t in widescreen. If the argument is made that the aspect ratio here provides claustrophobia, then we should be saying that other Westerns like Stagecoach (1939) and Shane (1953) are as well since they’re in the same ratio, something I would find preposterous. It also wasn’t that long ago that we all had square TVs and watched pan-and-scan videos. Did it feel claustrophobic to watch films then? This is not to say the choice was uncalculated. In fact, what I think the ratio provides is more realism, which is essential to the film’s feel.  Widescreen photography lends to the greater capacity of creating compositions, and the wider the screen, the more elaborate the compositions can be. Compositions do not feel realist in principle, they can feel manipulative, as if the hand of the director or cinematographer can be felt as he placed everything just so. Having a smaller field of vision limits the potential for compositions and I think that’s why Reichardt chose it. I also think it’s effectively done and one of the reasons for the film's success. You will almost never see the groups of men and women framed together. They are nearly always framed separately, because the camera doesn’t allow them to be framed together. With the men and women often separated, it highlights how women were probably not included in these types of conversations that men had. As viewers, we’re often watching the film from the women’s point of view as we watch the men talking from a distance. Reichardt also places most of the film’s emotion, as little as there is, on the shoulders of the women. She clearly wants us to see things as they do.

Meek’s Cutoff works so well because it’s such a deep meditation on quiet desperation. This film contains none of the tropes that cinema uses to trump up desperation or desolation, particularly in Westerns. There are no gunfights, fisticuffs, or even loud verbal wars between people. Mostly the film lingers on the mounting escalation of dread amongst the attempts at perseverance and hope. As things look bleaker and no water is found, hope begins to fade and desperation comes more to the fore. Yet it’s always restrained and cold, and the film forces you to stay in that place, providing no exposition or conclusion, confronting you with the eternal consequences of choice. In tone and execution, Reichardt’s obsession with quiet desperation seems to be her inspiration. It’s clearly what drives Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, and is the main focus in Meek’s Cutoff. I’m reminded of the films of Ozu, Melville, and Bresson, but Reichardt is less interested in providing any redemption or conclusion to her stories. In more recent times, Van Sant’s trilogy of Gerry (2002), Elephant (2003), and Last Days (2005) are echoed a bit in Reichardt’s films, but again, Reichardt’s insistence on less cinematic intrusion and more realism separates her. This is a beautiful and memorable film from a unique voice.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Star is Born (1954) - Directed by George Cukor

Note that this essay of A Star is Born appears in the Wonders in the Dark Top 70 Musicals Countdown, coming in at #19.

Judy Garland. There were always two sides of her. On the one side, there was the immense talent and capability to entertain an audience. Her visceral vibrato could grab you and shake you to your core, and the way she conveyed her joy of singing was always so heartfelt, connecting straight to the audience's emotions. As a teenager, we saw her in perhaps the most iconic role in the history of cinema - Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (1939), something most of us recall in a primordial sort of fashion, identifying with her sense of wonderment. On the other side was the immense tragedy. She may have been perhaps the most tragic figure ever created and tossed-aside by Hollywood. It's all the stuff of legend now though: the pills and drugs, the weight losses, the weight gains, the failed marriages, and the suicidal behavior. What's amazing is that for most of her career, MGM was able to somehow separate the two Judys and glossed over her immense personal struggles, despite her wildly erratic work behavior, to only present us the talent; the good Judy. One film, though, captures all of Judy. All of her intense personal pain and unbelievable talent in one film. George Cukor's A Star is Born is the film that dared to take Judy as she was, which was both one of the most talented entertainers to ever live and the most tragic of stars.

Cukor's film had a tumultous history, not the least of which was the path that Judy took to get into the film.  She had a nervous breakdown and slashed her wrists with broken glass during The Pirate (1948) of which she missed 99 out of 135 days of shooting. She successfully teamed up with Fred Astaire in MGM's Easter Parade (1948) and somehow completed In the Good Old Summertime (1949) but because of her addictions, she was fired from The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), barely made it through Summer Stock (1950), and was fired from Annie Get Your Gun (1950). The last straw was after she could not show up to work regularly for Royal Wedding (1951), she was fired by MGM. As noted in Gerald Clarke's Get Happy, he quotes Judy regarding the moment when she cut her throat with broken glass following her firing: "I wanted to black out the future as well as the past. I didn't want to live any more. I wanted to hurt myself and others." She also had continued issues with her husband and during this period, divorced Vincente Minnelli. To get herself back on track she hired Sidney Luft as her manager, who realizing that Judy still had great promise, booked her for concerts in London that went smashingly well. She went on to New York where she played at The Palace for an amazing 19 weeks, including 184 performances. Critics and fans were on her side, she married Sid Luft, and amazingly she won herself a new contract and a new film role. This was going to be her comeback film with a new studio- Warner Brothers.

Sid Luft was going to produce A Star is Born, and he assembled a crew that he felt would work well for Judy. But of course, not all went as planned. Judy tried as she might, but her drug and health problems resurfaced as the shooting went on, leading to delays and budget problems. In Get Happy, Clarke recalls a letter from George Cukor to his friend Katherine Hepburn regarding Judy: "About 3 weeks ago, strange sinister and sad things began happening to Judy." Cukor describes how Judy would call in sick and then be seen that night at a club. Cukor wrote, "This is the behavior of someone unhinged." Finally after 9 months, the film was completed, including a partial reshoot from standard aspect ratio to CinemaScope lenses, and amounted to a massive 196 minutes. Cukor and editor Folmar Blangsted cut the film down to 181 minutes prior to the premiere. However, after the premier, Warner studios cut the film down to 154 minutes without consulting Cukor (who was in India scouting locations for Bhowani Junction (1956)), resulting in the loss of two musical numbers and other key scenes. All this footage was considered lost for decades, but film preservationist Ronald Haver, after extensive searches, found both missing song sequences, "Here's What I'm Here For" and the brilliant "Lose that Long Face" and several other scenes, as well as missing soundtrack elements. A near-complete restoration that followed was completed in 1983, bringing the running time to 176 minutes. A Star is Born is now always shown in this restored version, that also incorporates some still photos to account for missing film images, while the complete audio soundtrack is played.

A Star is Born was filmed once before, in 1937 (a non-musical) and once after in 1976 (with Streisand). Cukor's 1954 film is the definitive story though, filled with the kind of searing melodrama that Douglas Sirk was doing at the time. Judy Garland stars as Esther Blodgett, a talented singer, but someone who has never gotten the big break. She has a run-in with fading, alcoholic Hollywood star Norman Maine (James Mason) during a Hollywood engagement. They hit-it-off, and after he sees her sing, realizes she has immense talent and decides to get her a screen test at the studio. She of course gets the job, marries Norman and we follow Esther (who gets renamed Vicki Lester) and her rise to stardom while we also get the parallel story of Norman and his Hollywood decline through alcoholism. So many elements in the script of course are so closely biographical to Judy's life. Not only the references to Judy's young years on the stage around the country doing Vaudeville (that's told in the "Born in a Trunk" sequence), her rise to stardom and the troubled marriage, but also in the story of addiction that plays out through the Norman Maine character. Clearly, the story of Norman Maine is the sad story of Judy Garland in her latter years, only it's James Mason playing the character and not her. There's a deeply felt and utterly sad moment where Vicki is recounting to the studio head the troubles she is having dealing with a husband who is an addict. This must have been a devastating scene for Judy to complete with the scenario hitting so close to home.

A Star is Born contains some great music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Among all the musical numbers in the film, there are two clear stand-outs. One is the stupendous 15-minute "Born in a Trunk" medley. We are introduced to the scene in a film-within-a-film, as we watch Vicki's premier at the theatre. It's a colorful and brilliantly composed sequence of scenes where the sets are switched in and out and Judy is given a great collection of songs to sing, including "Swanee", that highlight her range as a singer. Of course, the other scene to highlight can rightly be claimed as one of the best musical numbers that ever appeared in any musical. It is "The Man That Got Away". In the scene, Esther (prior to being renamed Vicki) is with her traveling band, late at night in a club, when they improvise a moment for themselves and they tell her to sing it. It's hard to describe the power with which Garland sings the song. She seems to summon some kind of tidal-wave of emotion that rides on her powerful vibrato, and I mean powerful. She doesn't just want you to hear the song. She wants you to feel it. If you don't get chills while listening to her sing this song, you might need to check your pulse. It's a perfect song and a perfect scene, done in one take.

This film's greatest achievement is that it captures and preserves the essence of Judy Garland, including all her worn-in, unfiltered emotions, and the sweat and guts of someone who had been living through addiction and personal strife for nearly her entire life. I've always thought Garland was an underrated actress. When you consider her work in Oz (1939), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Clock (1945) and A Star is Born, it's hard not to be in awe of her ability to project emotional honesty and transparency. If you watch her passionate performance in the non-musical, The Clock by Minnelli, you can see her talent as an actress laid bare. You watch her for a few minutes and you immediately are pulled in by her openness. In this way, A Star is Born allows her the chance to be dramatic and emotionally naked for much of the film, but, it also lets her belt out a tune, something she was gifted with beyond all measure. Her performance in A Star is Born is one of the greatest performances by an actress that I've ever seen. Time once maintained that her performance was "just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history." However it should also be noted that James Mason's work here as an alcoholic is nearly as good and should be praised for giving a performance that supports, but does not upstage the film with showiness. It feels like his performance is a precursor to his masterful work in Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956). But, this is still Judy's film. Sadly to say, this really wasn't her comeback. Following her devastating loss on Oscar night to Grace Kelly, she wouldn't appear again in a film until 6 years later. No studio wanted to take any more chances on her and couldn't afford to spend days idle, waiting for her to show up on the set in some kind of decent shape. A Star is Born thus acts as the final great testament to one of the greatest entertainers and actresses of the Hollywood era and one of the greatest singers who ever lived. Judy Garland will always be remembered as Dorothy, but to see the real Judy, see this one.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Naked Spur (1953) - Directed by Anthony Mann

If the Western genre is considered John Ford’s playground, then it has to be Anthony Mann’s back-alley. Taking the economy of storyline from film noir, and infusing it into the Western, Mann makes the West into a lawless, seedy place, strewn with boulders, snapped pines, rivers raging beyond passage, and no heroes in sight. His collaboration with James Stewart on five Westerns in the 1950’s should rightly place alongside Ford’s partnering with John Wayne as the greatest tag-team duo in the history of Westerns, with Leone-Eastwood taking home a door prize. Compared with Ford’s poignant and often sentimental Westerns, Mann’s films are taut, dark and realistically violent, providing a unique contrast to that most American of genres.

The Naked Spur is probably Mann’s greatest Western, and features the epitome of his style in the genre. We’re introduced to Howard Kemp (James Stewart), who might as well be a “Man with No Name”, tracking a wanted killer, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) through the Colorado Rockies. Stewart is a bounty hunter, desperate for the $5,000 reward for some reason we’re not initially made aware of. Mann’s film is coy about his motives, but we realize that Howard is a cold and dark being. He happens across Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), a gold prospector, whom he pays to help him pick up the trail where he lost it. Soon, they find Ben, and with the aid of disgraced Union Soldier, Lt. Anderson (Ralph Meeker), they are able to catch Ben at the top of a cliff after a brutal struggle to reach the top. When they do, they also find Ben has a woman with him, Lina (Janet Leigh), who is the daughter of a deceased friend. Of course the crux of the psychologically fraught film is that Howard now has two other fellas with him that want to share in the reward they feel they rightly deserve for helping to catch Ben. Ben rightly assumes he has a better chance of getting free if he turns each of the men against each other, by playing on their greedy desires. Furthermore, Ben convinces Lina that she use her sex appeal to get between the men and stir up dissent.

Mann’s film was shot nearly entirely in the high ranges of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, eliminating the wide open spaces of Monument Valley so favored by Ford, replacing them with steep cliffs and boulders, dense forests and forbidding rivers. It seems at every turn, the party is faced with some natural deterrence, further highlighting the psychological obstacles and tensions the team faces by directly paralleling the landscape to the psychology. Stewart also probably spends more time rolling in the dirt in a fist fight than actually on his horse. He’s also shot, rope burned, gets a fever and night terrors, and routinely is disturbed by thoughts of his past. We learn in the middle of the film, that he was betrayed by someone, leading him on this quest for money. It’s the one shred of background information provided to us on his character. There’s little exposition provided, and as I mentioned the economy of storyline is one of the film’s attributes, something that the other Mann Westerns share in common.

Stewart’s Howard presages the revisionist Western characters that would populate the landscape in the coming decades, making protagonists into anti-heroes with deep personal flaws, or just plain cold-blooded killers. Howard Kemp is a desperate and ugly man on a mission. Stewart’s performance is tough and grizzled. There’s definitely a bit of Howard Kemp in The Searchers' (1956) Ethan Edwards. Robert Ryan is also memorably snarky as Ben, one of the best villains in the history of Westerns as he plays games with his captors, turning them against each other. He’s funny, evil and terribly clever in this role. But this is Mann’s show, as his taut and tough directing style perfectly establishes the correct point of view for this story, which penetrates deeply and remains quite fresh today. In fact, although John Ford is probably considered the established voice of the American Western, I wonder whether Mann consistently represents the more realistic portrayals, filled with greed, fear and obsession, lacking in sentiment.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Drive (2011) - Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive is a brilliant piece of escapist cinema, one loaded with potentially multiple ways in which to interpret it as attested to the range of appreciation it's getting. I've read many reviews by people that love the film and many reviews by people that don't. For those that don't like it, many complaints are that is borrows too heavily from the films of Michael Mann and Jean-Pierre Melville. I grant that on the surface the film seems highly reliant on plot that comes from other films: Melville's, Mann's, Friedkin's etc. But there's so much more than that here. For me, Drive played as a combination of the souped-up masculine aesthetic coupled with overtly pulp melodrama. But he doesn't stop there, as Refn also throws in Christ-figure references and a superhero pastiche all to a magnificent end. Ryan Gosling plays a man who is a hired getaway driver by night, and a stunt driver during the day. He becomes attracted to his apartment neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) who is living alone with her young son. Soon, the bloom of love is thwarted when Irene's husband gets out of prison. The Driver decides to help her husband get out of some debts by being his driver in a heist. The rest of the film is a wild and memorable ride through L.A.

Before I get into my analysis of the film, I must make mention of the wonderful soundtrack, which contains some brilliant composed pieces from Cliff Martinez, all synth and grind, giving the film its background propulsion. There are also several other dream-pop tracks in the film, adding emotion to the proceedings, like "A Real Hero" by College and "Under Your Spell" by Desire. We must also make special mention of Albert Brooks as Bernie Rose, the head gangster of the film. Brooks gives a terrifying performance as this deadly killer and is absolutely brilliant. It's hard to believe it's the same guy who was in Broadcast News (1987). Although Carey Mulligan isn't given a large part in the film, I always enjoy her in any movie she's in.

There are a few clear delineations that make Refn's film his own, rather than purely derivative. One is the fact that he makes the hyper-masculine myth into a more emotional expression. Thus, Refn and Gosling have put the emotion back into neo-noir. I'm calling this emo-noir. One can sense the heart behind Gosling's eyes. He's not a nihilistic, vengeful man. He's a man with deep-set pain beneath the surface, with the super-cool veneer only covering up his yearnings for love and redemption. Yes, Gosling maintains a heightened look of the iconic "man with no name", oozing style. But unlike McQueen, Eastwood, and Delon, he is asked to be a far more sensitive actor. Simmering just beneath the surface is a man with a soft spot for his apartment neighbor and her son. He's quicker to smile than those other "cool" guys too. He's emotive not because of what he says, but for what he does, displaying a caring attitude and gentleness toward this woman and her boy. He's a literal knight in shining armor with his shiny, silver jacket and scorpion symbol on his back, like some courageous superhero. His sense of self-sacrifice, without any real promise of return from anyone is also near Biblical in its references. He could care less about the money at his disposal and is only interested in the safety of those he cares for, willing to risk his life for them.

Another important difference between Melville's or Mann's world, is there is an embracing of the cheese factor. In Jean-Pierre Melville's late career films, the actors are so zen-like that there is not a shred of weakness or insincerity and the same goes for Mann's films. Refn approaches things differently. Drive does not take itself so seriously! In interviews, Refn has, believe it or not, mentioned that he was influenced by Sixteen Candles (1984), Pretty Woman (1990), and the gay films of Kenneth Anger. Either he's joking, or he's crazy! I think I believe him because Drive is unselfconciously over-the-top. This is Melvillian neo-noir filtered through melodrama, specifically Sirk's/Fassbinder's emotional and highly stylized cinematic world of buried desires and color cues. Thus Refn creates a pulp-fiction all his own. Somehow the film avoids pretension because there is no sense of realism. This is pure fantasy world, loaded with dream-pop music, an unabashed love story, comic-book violence, and a near homoerotic fixation on masculine style. This is not a reserved film, or one shy of wearing it's heart on it's sleeve. Refn has confidently pushed many styles and influences together to create a wholly beautiful and glorious cinematic experience. 

P.S. As a note on the extreme violence which punctuates the proceedings, especially in the second half, yes the film contains some brutal and gory scenes. But if you've seen the film, you will recall that there are also two key kill scenes that are quite restrained in their approach near the end of the film, where Refn could've been far more exploitative. I'm not trying to make excuses for the violence, it's just that I don't feel this film fits the definition of gratuitous. It feels like there is a point to the violence.

Monday, October 3, 2011


Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe. How could My Week With Marilyn not be good?